Teun Voeten

For the last 22 years, I have been covering wars and conflicts worldwide. I have seen the gamut of barbaric acts of which humans are capable. In Sarajevo, I ran from snipers shooting innocent civilians who were already being starved by the strangling siege. I was in Kigali when the genocide started and saw machete-wielding mobs hunting down hapless victims. In Kabul and Grozny, I walked in residential neighborhoods reduced to rubble, their former inhabitants scrounging for food in the company of stray dogs. I had my share of craziness in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where I was confronted many times with doped-up child soldiers. Recently, in Libya, I smelled that sickening odor of dead bodies left behind after another cowardly massacre.

Nothing compares to the recent drug violence in Mexico – the sheer brutality and cruelty I was able to photograph, and even worse atrocities I did not witness, but heard about in the news or watched in disgust in gory videos posted by the perpetrators themselves on YouTube.

The violence in Mexico has passed a threshold and has become a war – a new kind of war. The thing I found most shocking is the near total impunity that reigns. Ninety-eight percent of murders in Ciudad Juarez will likely never be solved. One feels very vulnerable, knowing that at any moment, for any reason, one can be mowed down while the killers walk away freely. Most murders are classified as “Drug Related” and are not even investigated. The forensic services, anyway, can’t cope with the workload. Opportunistic “unorganized” crime flourishes in this general atmosphere, one in which the state can no longer guarantee the safety of its citizens. Some parts of Mexico are de facto controlled by organized crime.

The following images - shot between 2009-2011 in Cuidad Juárez and other hot spots in Culiacán and Michoacán - are excepted from my new book, Narco Estado; Drug Violence in Mexico (Sept. 2012, Lannoo Publishers, Belgium).

Documenting narco violence is a challenge. The warring factions are unknown, hidden actors that operate in a veil of secrecy. There are no pitched battles, but rather unannounced strikes – hit-and-run actions. Unlike guerilla movements with political agendas, DTOs (Drug Trafficking Organizations) do not have public relations departments that cater to journalists and try, through them, to win hearts and minds. When the cartels use journalists, it is to publicize their ferociousness so as to scare off the competition. Sometimes, the murderers even call in the press to visit a fresh crime scene.

With more than 81 journalists killed over the last decade, Mexico has become one of the deadliest places for the media. Mostly it is local, investigative reporters researching links between authorities and organized crime that are targeted, with foreign reporters left relatively untouched. Perhaps it is because visiting journalists just scratch the surface, reporting old stories – old dirt on the cartels – while the locals can get uncomfortably close.

I’ve been asked many times if I see a solution. Frankly, I don’t see an easy one. As Howard Campbell, a drug-cartel expert at the University of Texas in El Paso, points out, traffickers, consumers, bankers and corrupt politicians form a perfect self-perpetuating system that is hard to break. Some parts of the chain, however, can be weakened. Stricter gun control on the border would deny organized crime the enormous firepower it currently has. Tighter financial regulation to prevent money laundering would make illicit activities less attractive. Consumers have a responsibility, too.  

Having worked mostly in social-political conflicts, many friends and colleagues wondered why I focused on what they interpret as a marginal criminal problem. The drug violence in Mexico, however, is not an isolated case of gang warfare. It has immense social and political implications of a texture which can never be contained. The erosion of a civil society and its gradual takeover by organized crime, the nascence of a new class of excluded and disposable people that choose a criminal career that ends in certain death, the devaluation of human life – all these elements present a nightmarish scenario. I believe we cannot close our eyes.

Juárez, Mariscal district, October 2009; A Mariachi waits for customers near a deserted nightclub...


Navolato, near Culiacán, November 2009; Some 10 people werekilled on this day.


Juarez, June 2009


Juárez, April 2011; Ten bullet casings lay scattered around the body of a traffic cop


Culiacán, June 2009; A body is found, bound, early morning in an alley in the industrial zone


Juárez, May 2011; Another killing in the notorious Bella Vista neighborhood


Culiacán, September 2011; The body, bound with an electrical cord, showed signs of torture, with 33 AK-47 shells nearby


Juárez, October 2009; An ice cream vender crosses the tracks to El Paso on Avenida Francisco "Pancho" Villa


Juárez, June 2009; Military police on patrol on the outskirts of the city


Juárez, June 2009

Teun Voeten studied cultural anthropology in the Netherlands. He has shot for Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The New Yorker and National Geographic. He also works for the International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He’s written two books: Tunnel People, an anthropological-journalistic account of five months living with an underground homeless community in New York; and How de Body? Hope and Horror in Sierra Leone. He is writing his PhD thesis at Leiden University on extreme drug violence in Mexico. More of Voeten's work, including information about Narco Estado, can be found at http://www.teunvoeten.com/publications_narconihilism.html